Can Your Agency Force You to Relocate?

The Department of Agriculture announced in August that it plans to relocate two offices – the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and the Economic Research Service (ERS). The proposal has met with some resistance from the Congress and from employees and their representatives.

Without getting into the merits of this or any other proposal, the idea of directed reassignments to different commuting areas is worth discussing. Can the government force you to relocate or risk losing your job? Do they have to get congressional approval? Do you have to be on a mobility agreement? What options do employees have when their jobs are moving but they do not want to go with them?

The answer to the first question is generally yes – your job can be relocated and failure to relocate with it can be grounds for removal. Most federal workers know that members of the Senior Executive Service are subject to directed reassignments to different locations, but it is less well known that the same vulnerability exists for other employees. If the government wants to move you, it has to pay for moving expenses, including real estate fees, temporary quarters, and movement of household goods.

The fact that employees can find their jobs relocated does not mean it happens often. Large scale relocations tend to generate congressional interest because no Representative or Senator wants to see jobs moving from their district or state. Unions also weigh in against such changes, and local officials also oppose losing local jobs. That does not mean such moves do not and can never happen. They can.

One question I have gotten not this subject is about mobility agreements. Some employees have to sign mobility agreements as a condition of employment. If the employee declines a move, s/he can be fired for failing to satisfy a condition of employment. That leads to the misconception that only employees on mobility agreements can be ordered to relocate. Other employees can be ordered to relocate as well.

The right of an agency to force a move and fire the employees who refuse to move has been established in case law since 1980. When the employee is not covered by a mobility agreement, the agency has the burden to show that they are making the move because of legitimate mangement reasons that would promote the efficiency of the service and to give employees sufficient notice. If the agency can meet that burden and the employee cannot show that the reason is a pretext, the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) will typically uphold the removal. If the employee is covered by a mobility agreement, the removal is even easier for the agency to defend.

Making a decision to accept a move is not easy and in today’s economy, it can be complicated. What happens if the employee is married and his/her spouse is employed as well. Whose job pays the most? What happens if the nongovernment spouse cannot find another job? Can they live on one income? Would a move derail the spouse’s career? Are there other family considerations such as child or elder care? Or a child who is in the last year of high school? Or a mortgage that is upside down because of the fluctuating home market? All of those are legitimate personal issues that many people would face. Sadly, the government does not have to consider such problems in making its decisions. In fact, considering some of them would put an agency in jeopardy. For example, if an agency decided it was easier to move Betty Lou because she was not married and lived alone, rather than moving Bob who is married, the agency would discriminate against Betty Lou based on her marital status. That means an agency cannot consider some of the very real human consequences of its decisions.

Another question is about the impact of geographic moves on an agency. What happens when an agency decides to move 100 or 1,000 or more jobs? How many employees relocate? How many find other jobs in the agency? And how many end up out of the agency or even out of government? Does the agency have the money to pay for moves that can easily cost $100,000 or more per employee? The best answers to some of those questions come from the Department of Defense (DOD). During multiple rounds of the Base Closure and Realignment Commissions, DOD made many decisions to relocate or consolidate organizations.

For a short move 40 miles away, Federal News Radio reported that 70 percent of employees relocated with their jobs when the Defense Information Systems Agency moved to Fort Meade, Maryland, while 15 percent found other jobs and 15 percent retired. The Department of the Army reported it expected about 30 percent of employees to relocate in BRAC-related moves. The Defense Logistics Agency had a similar experience. For the most part, employees made short distance moves, but were unwilling or unable to make big moves. The number of people moving with their jobs can be affected by the number of federal jobs in the losing area. The more jobs the area has, the larger the number who will stay put. Given the increased number of federal employees now eligible for retirement, I would expect to see even larger numbers of retirements than DOD experienced during BRAC.

When agencies are moving small numbers of employees, the effect is typically not severe. If an agent wants to move three employees and two say no, filling the jobs is not a big deal. When the moves involve large numbers, the problems can grow. If an agency has 1,000 jobs that relocate and only 300 people go with them, the impact on the mission can be significant. Filling hundreds of jobs can be too big a climb for some agencies and some types of jobs. Agencies can take steps to mitigate the damage by phasing moves over a period of years rather than months, and can increase telework for jobs that do not have to be in a particular location.

The last question is congressional approval. Does an agency have to get the blessing of Congress to relocate employees? It depends on the scale of the moves. If an agency wants to relocate a handful of employees, it can often be done entirely within agency appropriations and operating authorities. When the numbers get to the point where the agency needs big dollars to pay for relocation, or is moving dozens or hundreds or more jobs, there may be congressional notification requirements, reprogramming requests, or new money needed. In those cases, Congress will have a say and their questions will cover an agency’s reasons for the move, how it plans to deal with workforce issues, and how it will mitigate the risk to the mission that may be caused by large numbers of employees refusing to relocate.

So clearly you can find your job being moved to another location. Should most employees be fearful that their jobs may be relocated? No. Unless there is a large program like BRAC, the number of employees who are forced to relocate in any year is very small. It is not insignificant to the people whose jobs are affected, but most employees will never be asked to make a geographic move that they do not want.

Federal Pay – Primum Non Nocere

In case you are not keeping up with your Latin, primum non nocere means first, do no harm. The phrase is often wrongly cited as part of the Hippocratic Oath. The idea is simple – when you are trying to help, you should not harm the patient.

That phrase comes to mind when I read all of the opinions about a pay raise for federal workers. President Donald J. Trump recommended no federal pay raise for 2019, citing our fiscal situation. President Trump’s letter said “Title 5, United States Code, authorizes me to implement alternative plans for pay adjustments for civilian Federal employees covered by the General Schedule and certain other pay systems if, because of “national emergency or serious economic conditions affecting the general welfare,” I view the increases that would otherwise take effect as inappropriate. Under current law, locality pay increases averaging 25.70 percent, costing $25 billion, would go into effect in January 2019, in addition to a 2.1 percent across-the-board increase for the base General Schedule.  We must maintain efforts to put our Nation on a fiscally sustainable course, and Federal agency budgets cannot sustain such increases.  Accordingly, I have determined that it is appropriate to exercise my authority to set alternative across-the-board and locality pay adjustments for 2019 pursuant to 5 U.S.C. 5303(b) and 5304a.”

The letter goes on to say “As noted in my Budget for Fiscal Year 2019, the cost of employing the Federal workforce is significant.  In light of our Nation’s fiscal situation, Federal employee pay must be performance-based, and aligned strategically toward recruiting, retaining, and rewarding high-performing Federal employees and those with critical skill sets.  Across-the-board pay increases and locality pay increases, in particular, have long-term fixed costs, yet fail to address existing pay disparities or target mission critical recruitment and retention goals.”

Needless to say, there are a lot of opinions on this issue. Some (including the president) argue that we have not done the pay reform that the civil service needs, so pay raises may exacerbate pay inequities and that the across-the-board nature of the pay raises does not target mission critical recruitment. The president’s letter also cited the problems with the “nation’s fiscal situation.” There are no specifics on that, so the logical conclusion is that the “fiscal situation” means the deficit, which may approach $1 trillion by the end of the year.

Other folks argue that the full pay raise of 25.7 percent should go into effect. They say that federal workers are underpaid and have “given at the office” with three previous pay freezes during the Obama Administration.

So – what is the right answer here? Should pay be frozen? Should it go up by 25 percent? Or should it go up at some reasonable rate that is closer to the 2.6 percent raise military personnel will receive next year?

I believe we should go with the idea of “first, do no harm.” That means giving employees a pay raise that is equal to, or at least close to, the military pay raise. The basic idea of pay raise equity for military and civilian personnel has been the practice for many years. Given how many expenditures in the federal budget are for things of questionable value, and how much is done through selective tax cuts, the cost of the federal employee pay raise is not extreme.

As the president’s letter says, the proposed federal pay raise does nothing to address aligning pay with performance, nor does it deal with pay disparities for mission critical jobs. Giving no pay raise to anyone does even less to deal with those issues. I would argue that it actually does harm by making federal jobs that do not offer competitive pay fall behind even more. With federal turnover increasing, and pay for many in-demand occupations already falling short, we cannot afford to make the problem worse.

Would it be better to offer targeted pay raises only for occupations where federal pay truly lags behind the rest of the labor market? Absolutely. Is that something we expect to see from Congress in the next few months? No. Is it something we expect to see next year? No.

I have been saying for years that we need to fix federal pay. Some folks are overpaid, some are underpaid, and some are about right. The numbers that claim federal workers are underpaid by 25 percent or more are not credible, nor are the claims that feds are overpaid by thirty or forty percent. Most reasonable people will tell you that we have no idea how many employees are under or over paid.

We need to use better measures of pay comparability, and better measures of the effects of total compensation on hiring. Those fixes will require bipartisan legislation that the president will sign. For now, bipartisan is a four-letter word in this town and only the most optimistic (or delusional) among us think we will see comprehensive pay reform any time soon.

Until we are ready to actually fix the problems, we should not punish the federal workforce for the inadequacies of our political processes.